What Is a Currency Binary Option?

Currency binary options offer an all-or-nothing fixed payoff based on an exchange rate in the forex market when the option expires, which can be as little as five minutes after buying the option.

Binary options are often used as a means to speculate on currencies, rather than an investment or hedge.

Key Takeaways

  • Binary currency options are used to make all-or-nothing short-term bets on exchange rate fluctuations in the forex market.
  • Binary options may expire over the course of days or hours, but are also listed in increments of 5 or 10 minutes.
  • Binary options tend to be highly risky and speculative since a losing bet results in a complete loss of the option's premium.

How Currency Binary Options Work

Currency binary options are often considered to be a form of online gambling on currency markets, rather than investing or hedging, because unlike spot trading you lose your entire stake if the binary option is not in the money (ITM) at the time of expiration. The premium on a currency binary represents the consensus odds that the strike exchange rate will be reached by expiration. Moreover, currency binary options tend to have rather short expiration cycles, lasting from days to hours, or even minutes. To make any money, you have to be right well over half the time.

Because the odds are stacked in favor of the house, short-term volatility in currency markets makes winning consistently with binary options very difficult. No-one, not even the best professional forex traders, can know what will happen to an exchange rate in the next 5 or 10 minutes. However, binary options trading, which is a relatively new and largely unregulated market, does appeal to people who enjoy addictive gambling products, like online poker.

Currency binary options are mostly limited to major currency pairs like EUR/USD, GBP/USD and USD/YEN. Like forex spot trading, investors can start trading online with relatively small amounts of capital. In the U.S., binary options are highly regulated and only available on a small number of exchanges, such as Nadex. They appear to be more popular in European markets.

Examples of Binary Currency Options

Let’s use the EUR-USD currency pair to demonstrate how binary options can be used to trade forex. We use a weekly option that will expire at 3 P.M. on Friday, or four days from now (or Monday). Assume the current exchange rate is EUR 1 = USD 1.2440.

Consider the following scenarios:

1. You believe the euro is unlikely to weaken by Friday and should stay above 1.2425

The binary option EUR/USD>1.2425 is quoted at 49.00/55.00. You buy 10 contracts for a total of $550 (excluding commissions). At 3 P.M. on Friday, the euro is trading at USD 1.2450. Your binary option settles at 100, giving you a payout of $1,000. Your gross gain (before taking commissions into account) is $450, or approximately 82%. However, if the euro had closed below 1.2425, you would lose your entire $550 investment, for a 100% loss.

2. You are bearish on the euro and believe it could decline by Friday, say to USD 1.2375

The binary option EUR/USD>1.2375 is quoted at 60.00/66.00. Since you are bearish on the euro, you would sell this option. Your initial cost to sell each binary option contract is, therefore, $40 ($100 - $60). Assume you sell 10 contracts, and receive a total of $400. At 3 P.M. on Friday, let’s say the euro is trading at 1.2400. 

Since the euro closed above the strike price of $1.2375 by expiration, you would lose the full $400 or 100% of your investment. What if the euro had closed below 1.2375, as you had expected? In that case, the contract would settle at $100, and you would receive a total of $1,000 for your 10 contracts, for a gain of $600 or 150%.